There are good reasons why Cannes is twin-towned with Beverly Hills; both cities exist more in the imagination than the real world, both are filled with wealthy stars living in the hills under cyanic skies, both host high-profile movie events, and both have police forces that adopt uncompromising attitudes to outsiders. The Mayor of Cannes once infamously bussed the homeless out of town for the duration of the film festival. Cannes is also like a film set; a façade of elegance propped up by a disgruntled, stressed-out workforce.
But that’s where the comparison ends. The glamour of the Cannes Film Festival is mitigated by the seedy surreality of its surrounding market, a freewheeling nightmare for even the hardiest buyers and sellers any takers for Sharkman: The Movie? The market cinemas are old and cramped, the chances of finding a cinematic gem relatively rare, and bidding frenzies transform even the sweetest producers into werewolves. Somehow, despite all efforts at quality control, one always ends up seeing the festival’s very worst film in an auditorium that smells of sex and snackfood, and even directors are sometimes unable to gain admittance to their own movies. I thought LA doormen were tough until I saw French fans held in headlocks while Arnie made his entrance.
Everyone has horror stories about Cannes, the audacious thievery, the staggering cost of a salad, the rubbernecking crowds, the sheer effrontery of hotel staff. And yet there are sublime, bleary memories; the Leningrad Cowboys playing rockabilly with the Red Army, the Pythons holding four-in-the-morning sidewalk salons, Madonna and Tina Turner hitting the dancefloor as excited as schoolgirls. Everyone recalls specific events; the night the power failed and all Cannes was candlelit, the tear-gas attack on the British bar, the evening guests that were stranded aboard a ship full of porn stars. There’s a rough, reckless edge to the late nights, a frisson of danger that mitigates the glitz to prick the pomposity of the proceedings.
By creating a division between the awards ceremonies and the marketplace, the Cannes Film Festival is free to concentrate on the artistry of film, even if that means grappling with political issues. In May 1968, while protesting students were being baton-charged along La Croisette, the directors invited to Cannes squabbled about solidarity, yanking the curtains shut during a screening of Carlos Saura’s Peppermint Frappe as the jury members resigned. To show their solidarity, well-meaning film-makers raised the same flags all the young intellectuals in communist countries were trying to tear down. It’s interesting to note that the year’s most important film, Kubrick’s emotionally detached 2001: A Space Odyssey, came from America and did not voice discontent with the ruling class.
As if to silence criticism that Cannes preaches elitism to the converted, this year’s head of jury, Quentin Tarantino, brings a lowbrow, visceral approach to film that has always been matched by his magpie appropriation of world cinema. Although he is regarded with faint distaste by snooty festival regulars for failing to draw on real life in his films, European cinema is, like it or not, becoming more commercial, and Cannes must adapt to accommodate it.
In France, the cultural imperative keeps French-language films rolling from the production line, but halts their spread in English speaking territories a triumph for art over profit, perhaps, but a reduction in visibility that keeps some of the world’s most enjoyable films from receiving international attention. Further confusion arises because not all European films are “art” films; many, like Sueurs and Le Boulet are big budget actioners that just happen to be in another language. Cannes isn’t interested and Hollywood senses rivalry, so they remain marooned in domestic cinemas.
As Hollywood trawls ever deeper through old comic books for franchises, France and Belgium have finally realised that they are sitting on goldmines. The tradition of bande-dessinees or BDs (graphic novels), is long and illustrious. Exercises in artistic elegance, they’re read by all age groups, so this year we have innovative big budget film versions of Immortel and Blueberry, and there are plenty more at storyboard stage. Not that the baggy-eyed film buyers in rumpled suits searching for tables on the Carlton terrace will get much of a look in; most such mainstream epics are beyond their budgets.
Like Berlin, Geneva, Venice or even Sicily’s Taormina, Cannes is a trade show town; visit it in a different month and you’ll find yourself surrounded by dentists or antique dealers. Despite this cosmopolitanism, Cannes manages to prove exasperating and impenetrable to the casual visitor; just ordering a coffee becomes an obstacle course of ritual humiliation. There are hotels that only accept cash, menus that switch at 2:00pm, and arcane rules governing the availability of cabs and behaviour aboard yachts. Consequently, I know producers who have been attending the festival for decades, but have never dared to travel beyond the Bunker, the unlovely dungeon wherein films are traded. Go five miles along the coast, however, and you’ll be welcomed with a generosity of spirit that can melt the most francophobic heart.
Better still, keep driving until you reach Monte Carlo’s annual Screen Adaptation festival, to discover how Cannes must have been in the ’50s; the four-day event is starry, exclusive and elegantly understated. Here, the black-tie diners are not beset by vulgar paparazzi Prince Albert wouldn’t allow that and a salon atmosphere actually indulges artists, not tradespeople. Even more shockingly, the price of a coffee near the Casino is about the same as a takeout from Starbucks, and in a principality where the average resident has seven bank accounts, that’s something to be savoured. Perhaps it’s time the world’s more overwrought media events, such as the Cannes Film Festival, rediscover their roots.